The Meaning of Barcodes

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Barcodes are on virtually every product you buy today in one form or another. They usually consist of several black lines of different widths separated by white spaces. Read by a barcode scanner, they are a fast and efficient way to identify products. Manufacturers, distributors, wholesalers and retailers all use barcodes to track inventory and to process sales.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Barcodes identify products with a specific number when they are scanned with a barcode scanner. The numbers that usually appear below the barcode are the same numbers that the scanner will send to a computer.

Types of Barcodes

There are over a dozen different barcode types used today. Some are used exclusively by shipping companies, while others are used by manufacturers to identify components. Some of the most common include:

  • Universal Product Codes (UPC-A): Originally created for grocery stores, this is the barcode most consumers in the United States see in retail stores. The first set of numbers identifies the manufacturer, while the second set identifies a specific product. UPC-A and EAN-13 barcodes are part of the GS1 standard.

  • European Article Number (EAN-13): This is an international version of UPC that can be read by American barcode scanners. In fact, UPC is a subset of EAN.

  • Code 39: One of the oldest types of barcode, code 39 is used in electronics, government and health care. It uses any letter, number or special character in the ASCII 128-character set with virtually no limit in its length.

  • Code 128: This is a compact version of code 38, used primarily for packaging and shipping. It can also use any character in the ASCII 128-character set.

  • Interleaved 2 of 5 (ITF): Used primarily in manufacturing, warehouses and distribution, it uses only numbers. Digits are paired so that the first digit is represented by a bar, and the second digit is represented by a space, or interleaved.

Barcode Numbers Explained

UPC-A barcodes are only used in the United States and Canada, while the rest of the world uses EAN-13. The two are nearly identical except that UPC codes have 12 digits, and EAN-13 codes have 13. This is because EAN-13 codes insert a country code at the beginning, while Canada and the U.S. do not.

In a UPC-A code, the first set of numbers identifies the company that has registered the code, and the second set of numbers identifies the products. The last number is a check digit. EAN-13 codes use the same system.

Contrary to popular belief, it's not possible to identify where a product was made or where food was grown using a UPC or EAN code. This is because the country code in a EAN number only identifies where the number was registered. American companies, for example, can register at gs1us.org and then can produce a product in China and give that product its own product code.

Benefits of Using Barcodes for Businesses

Originally developed to speed up sales transactions, like the barcode scanner you see at store checkout counters, using barcodes has several benefits for businesses.

  • Accuracy: Scanning a barcode eliminates the human error you get when people have to enter products or prices on a keyboard.

  • Speed: When products enter a warehouse, they can be scanned when they come off the pallets and automatically entered into inventory. The result is accurate inventory control in real time.

  • Reduced training: Scanning barcodes requires virtually no training time. Looking up products and entering them into a software system, on the other hand, can require several hours of training and supervision.

  • Inexpensive: Barcode scanners are very inexpensive and can be connected to most software systems you would use for inventory, including Microsoft Excel.

References

About the Author

A published author, David Weedmark has advised businesses on technology, media and marketing for more than 20 years and used to teach computer science at Algonquin College. He is currently the owner of Mad Hat Labs, a web design and media consultancy business. David has written hundreds of articles for newspapers, magazines and websites including American Express, Samsung, Re/Max and the New York Times' About.com.

Photo Credits

  • bar code/ id of a product image by L. Shat from Fotolia.com